Tesseract Center, Arkansas Universities Embrace Game Design

Dave Fredrick stands outside the Tesseract Center on the University of Arkansas campus.  “This is going to be ubiquitous,” he says of game design.
Dave Fredrick stands outside the Tesseract Center on the University of Arkansas campus. “This is going to be ubiquitous,” he says of game design. (Beth Hall)
(Wesley Hitt)

Dave Fredrick got a dreaded email recently.

A student went to fight a battle in Spain as a Roman soldier and, while going down some steps, fell through a hole into the endless vacuum of space. He was writing Fredrick to complain.

“He said, ‘I was looking up at the world as I was falling infinitely,’” Fredrick said. “Kids will find that little crack when you think you had everything airtight and watertight.”

The student in question is all right; he didn’t really fall. His computer game character did while playing a game designed by Fredrick’s team at the Tesseract Center for Immersive Environments & Game Design at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Fredrick is the director of the center and a classical studies professor at the university. The university’s board of trustees approved the center’s formation in November under the auspices of the UA’s Office of Research & Economic Development and Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences.

It was a big promotion for Fredrick’s group, which was formerly known as the Tesseract Studio and ran two game design courses out of a closet. Fredrick came up with the idea for a game design studio while trying to find a way to improve his research on Pompeian houses. He discovered user-friendly game engines.

“I was very interested in making 3-D models of those houses and walking through them and seeing how they work,” Fredrick said. “It took a year to figure out that if we didn’t teach game design, we weren’t going to know how to use the engine very well.

“We started teaching game design through the back door because I had been using it for research. It opened my eyes about how they spoke to me as an educator. Everything I’m reading here is applicable to things I do as a teacher. I decided to jump in whole hog and make a game design program here.”

Endless Applications

At the Tesseract Center, four full-time employees and as many as 15 student interns develop games that are then used to teach online students about mythology or Roman civilization. Fredrick said the applications are almost endless because the same game concepts can be used to teach numerous subjects, such as architecture, anatomy and history.

“This is going to be ubiquitous,” Fredrick said. “If colleges don’t train their students in this new soon-to-be-ubiquitous communication platform, they’re doing them a real disservice.”

Fredrick said the goal is to have the university offer a minor and a major in game design within a few years. When that happens, the University of Arkansas will be the third in the state to do so.

Arkansas Tech University in Russellville will offer a major degree program called Game & Interactive Media Design in the fall, and Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia started its program, Game Development & Animation Design, in 2013.

Southern Arkansas’ program was ranked as the 10th best in the South by Animation Career Review in 2015, and the school said 66 students had signed up for the coursework this year. Arkansas Tech has already had eight students switch to the game design major in the two weeks since it was announced.

“The idea is to build on some things and pave the way for an Arkansas that is more economically productive and ahead of its time,” said Jeff Woods, the dean of Arkansas Tech’s Arts & Humanities Department. “Try to look forward to the next big thing. I think this is a real catalyst for that. To be honest, I think this game design program has started to benefit the university in other ways because we’re starting to think about interdisciplinary collaboration on a whole different scale. It’s a new world. It has been a catalyst for a much more innovative approach to what we do.”

Steven Ochs, chairman of the Art & Design Department at SAU, said the university expects its first class of design graduates next year. SAU is also working with companies in Little Rock to start an internship program.

SAU offers design degrees through arts or computer science, a recognition that game design crosses many disciplines.

“We call it game design, but the same skills can go into so many different fields,” Ochs said. “It’s more than just entertainment. It’s a lot of different things.”

Entrepreneurial Interest

Fredrick said he has had discussions with northwest Arkansas entrepreneurs such as John James of Hayseed Ventures and Jeff Amerine of Startup Junkie. Amerine said gamification has as many business applications as it does in education.

“He has a chance to really change the way things happen in higher education,” Amerine said. “The whole area of gamification and particularly 3-D visualization has implications across just about any industry you can name. There are many, many different applications that cross education, industry, etc. You’re going to get more and more of that.”

And the pay is promising. SAU quoted a 2012-13 report by the Occupational Outlook Handbook that said the median income for software developers is more than $90,000.

Ochs said starting salaries are somewhat lower and programmers make more than art designers or writers, but it is still a lucrative, growing industry.

Fredrick said what is unique about the Tesseract Center is that the games are designed in large part by students to be used as online coursework. The center’s game, Mythos Unbound, is used in the classical mythology course, and it involves a student-player entering the game as a Roman slave and then using knowledge of the subject as the pathway to freedom.

“But the subject could be anything,” Fredrick said. “The goal is to have your student development team learning how to make games. They’re also learning a lot about the subject matter as they do it. The goal there is you fatten the pipeline of students with tech talent in our neck of the woods.”

Arkansas Tech has less of a tech ecosystem than, for example, Texas or even northwest or central Arkansas. Gamification is such a growing trend, Woods believes it soon will be widespread.

“You would hope you would eventually place a student there [in Texas],” Woods said. “But most of our students are going to stay in Arkansas and help develop industry here, either through startups or existing industries. Every place in between has possibilities for this.

“Games are what is going to draw the students in, but they are going to realize they have skills that can be used a bunch of different ways.”

Fredrick said it’s important to realize that game design isn’t just about being able to write code. Game design, like making a movie or writing a book, is about digital storytelling mixed with graphics and art, and user-friendly engines mean it’s not just for “super geeks” anymore.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, either. Fredrick said it took his team nine months to develop the Mythos game, and, of course, student-players found flaws and missteps Fredrick thought had been tested out.

“Our games aren’t perfect,” Fredrick said. “It’s really complicated to even get it to play, and then to get it to play and look good. Video game companies are actually really organized.” They have to be, he said, if they’re going to be successful.

That appreciation for organization “is an extremely important concept for the students in the lab,” Fredrick said. “There are so many moving parts and different disciplines that have to communicate.

“That’s what students want to take to their employment. They’re going to be great employees.”